Vogue is the big daddy of all fashion franchises – ironic – since it’s fronted by women.
We all know the bob which has become the best known face of Vogue; ice-cold reigning supreme US Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour. She’s achieved significant celebrity status of her own, managing, despite criticism, to keep a death grip on the Conde Nast Empire with her manicured hands. But Anna Wintour is not the only superstar on Vogue’s hallowed staff list; there’s Grace Coddington, the flame haired maverick and Alexandra Shulman, British Editor-in-Chief who likes a fag and a natter more than Ferragamo and twitter.
Fascinating, fabulous and frightening (that last is for you, Anna) as these characters in the cast may be, who did they inherit their thrones from? Do you really know anything about who ran Vogue in days past? Who were the women who gave birth to Vogue, nurtured it and watched it blossom?
Edna Woolman-Chase (1877–1957)
We’re going right back to the beginning; Edna was the first ever Editor-in-Chief of Vogue 1914-1952; that’s 38 years. To put it into perspective, Anna Wintour has held Editor-in-Chief for 27 years so far, she’s got a long way to go to beat Edna. What’s more, at one point Edna was running American, British, German and French Vogue all at the same time!
How did it happen?
Edna Woolman-Chase came from a Quaker family in New Jersey. She ran away to New York doing the ‘young, hopeful and full of dreams’ thing and landed in the dismal reality of the mailroom; her first job at Vogue was literally putting stamps on envelopes. Undaunted and a staunch believer in hard work, her genuine interest and dedication won the attention of Mr Turnure, the founder of the magazine. As Vogue was still in its infancy, the staff list was small and she could quickly rise through the ranks. When Mr Turnure died, the magazine nearly shut down. Thankfully for fashion fans worldwide, Conde Nast (yes, he was a real person) swept in a la Prince Charming, bought Vogue and saved all fashion victims from immediate suicide. He kept Edna on for her recognizable talents, saying of their partnership; “Between us … we showed America the meaning of style.”
In case Edna hasn’t wowed you yet, know this; she also invented Catwalk. There would have been no Victoria Secret angels, no Naomi Campbell and no America’s Next Top Model without her, the tiny lady with tight curls and Christian beliefs. Clothes used to be shown by designers directly to clients in private ateliers, usually by appointment only. However as a result of WWI, mass closure affected the couturiers and designers in Paris and since there was no longer access to Parisian fashion, Edna summoned all the promising designers of New York and bid them create collections to show in public. This “Fashion Fete” as it was called, was the forerunner of our modern-day fashion shows, it served to raise money for War efforts as well as allowing pieces to be seen by a wider range of women than would have had access to private salons. This push in the right direction encouraged designers to start making affordable and beautiful clothes targeting the previously neglected market and essentially sparking ready-to-wear and high street shopping as we know it.
Success in Dress
During Edna’s time as Editor, Vogue went from a small monthly mag to the hugely popular silky-sheeted bible it is today. Throughout the Depression and both Wars Vogue secured more subscriptions than usual – the mag was helping women escape their harsh everyday realities. Her enduring success, despite the War and other difficulties, is testament to her determination to make good and carry on no matter what, a stoic attitude which is clearly a recipe for triumphant success and which incidentally was also very much the philosophy of our Queen during war times. (Keep Calm and Carry On, anyone?)
Moreover Edna never made fashion exclusive; she took it out of the hands of elitist Parisian doyennes and designers and shared it out with people everywhere, making fashion fair – something it still struggles to do. By creating catwalks and boosting sections such as “More Taste Than Money” she firmly introduced the ethos that it was elegance and style which mattered over high fashion and snootiness. Edna’s own personal style was a bit mature, she was gaga about Victorian fashion and the colour blue sent her wild. Most of all she loathed open-toed shoes, believing they were “inappropriate, unsightly and dirty”, and yet now we have Anna Wintour in her immortal Manolo Blahnik’s, stabbing her way over the ground Edna paved… How the times have changed!
Last Look at Edna:
- Most famous thing she said: “Fashion can be bought. Style one must possess.”
- Most awkward thing she said: When a member of staff tried unsuccessfully to throw herself under a train: “My dear, we at Vogue don’t throw ourselves under subway trains. If we must, we take sleeping pills.”
- A tip to use today: No bum-eating shorts, girls. Edna Woolman-Chase said: “Women seem to have forgotten that men are lured by mystery, there is not much thrill left for them in the styles of today.”
Further reading: Always In Vogue (1954) by Edna. & Chase, Ilka. Woolman Chase.